An Irish nation gripped by football fever was mesmerised for three weeks during the unforgettable summer of 1990. But the groundwork for World Cup qualification began four years earlier with the appointment of an Englishman and a campaign that would eventually wind all the way to the Stadio Olimpico in Rome including a stop-off at the Vatican to meet the Pope.
The 1990’s saw Nelson Mandela freed after 26 years in captivity, East and West Germany unified into a single entity, Cork completing an historic football and hurling All-Ireland double and Mary Robinson elected the first Irish female President.
All important and historic events but none matched the earth-shattering drama and never to be forgotten memories of the Republic of Ireland’s adventures at Italia \’90.
The journey to Ireland’s first ever World Cup appearance began in 1986 with former English World Cup winner Jack Charlton the surprise appointment as new senior manager by the FAI.
John Giles, Liam Tuohy and bookies favourite Bob Paisley were all considered but an FAI Committee voted 10-8 in favour of Charlton over Paisley and the former Middlesbrough and Newcastle United manager was duly appointed.
Within two years Charlton had guided his new charges to the 1988 European Championships in West Germany. The Irish were eternally grateful to Gary MacKay, whose goal saw fellow Group opponents Scotland defeat Bulgaria 1-0 in Sofia in November 1987 and hand the Republic a ticket to their first ever international football tournament.
Ray Houghton’s header earned the Irish a remarkable 1-0 victory over the auld enemy England in the opening group match in the Neckarstadion, Stuttgart on June 12.
Three days later a spectacular Ronnie Whelan volley resulted in a merited 1-1 draw with the Soviet Union in Hanover before a crazy header from Wim Kieft saw the Dutch (eventual Euro 88′ winners) sneak past 1-0 to send Ireland home.
Despite the disappointment at failing to reach the semi-finals of Euro \’88 the Republic of Ireland’s first taste of qualification for an international tournament marked them down as a country on the rise in world football.
The Irish fans also earned world-wide recognition for their behaviour, wit and drinking ability and (like their team) would surpass all expectations at Italia \’90 two years later.
Ireland was drawn in World Cup qualifying Group 6 alongside Spain, Northern Ireland, Hungary and Malta and began their campaign in September 1988 with a scoreless draw at Windsor Park. A 2-0 defeat away to Spain in November was followed by a 0-0 draw in Budapest leaving Ireland with only two points from their opening three qualifiers.
Jack Charlton’s long-ball tactics and \’put them under pressure’ approach drew widespread criticism from many Irish football journalists, most notably Eamon Dunphy.
Charlton was constantly condemned for resorting to such a basic approach in spite of a squad which included the mercurial talents of Ronnie Whelan, Ray Houghton, Paul McGrath, John Aldridge and Kevin Sheedy.
The Irish manager alienated plenty of pundits with his brusque nature and tetchy after-match interviews. His players adored him though (due to a laid-back approach to after-match shenanigans) and results steadily improved as Group 6 drew to a dramatic conclusion.
Three consecutive victories in front of packed Lansdowne Road attendances between April and June 1989 reignited Ireland’s qualification aspirations. A Michel own goal handed Ireland a scrappy but deserved 1-0 victory over Group leaders Spain before Ray Houghton and Kevin Moran strikes defeated Malta 2-0.
Hungary were the visitors on June 4 and Paul McGrath and Tony Cascarino scored in either half to make it three home wins out of three.
Northern Ireland visited Lansdowne in October 1989 for the penultimate match of the qualification series. Irish schools around the country screened the international fixture live as World Cup fever began to grow and the home side did not disappoint.
Ronnie Whelan broke the deadlock two minutes before the interval and second half goals from Cascarino and Houghton completed a 3-0 win meaning victory away to Malta in the final game would seal passage to Italy.
A huge army of Irish supporters travelled to Valetta on November 15 to witness an historic sporting event. The Republic of Ireland won 2-0 thanks to a brace of goals from John Aldridge. The Liverpool striker had failed to find the target for much of his tenure under Charlton but struck twice on this occasion to defeat the Maltese.
The massive Irish following celebrated qualification for Italia 90′ in the Valetta stadium and long into the night with their signature \’OlÃ©, OlÃ©, OlÃ©’ chant announcing their arrival at football’s greatest competition.
Italy Here We Come
All eyes turned to the Palazzo dello Sport in Rome on December 9, 1989 for the FIFA World Cup draw. A star-studded line-up including Luciano Pavarotti, Sophia Loren, PelÃ© and Karl Heinz Rumminege helped FIFA General Secretary Sepp Blatter complete the draw interspersed with modern dance routines and live operatic performances.
Ireland were in pot three alongside Romania, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Colombia and Uruguay and hopes were high for a favourable draw.
Unfortunately the Republic was drawn in Group F alongside Egypt, the Netherlands and old foes England. A difficult group to say the least but that didn’t prevent thousands of Irish fans from booking chartered flights, sourcing accommodation, begging for match tickets and organising \’miscellaneous expenses’ ahead of the opening group game on June 11th with England in Cagliari.
Coming next: Italia 90 – Part 2 Another date with England, Egyptian curses and the beauty of Rome.
Ger McCarthy is author of the book entitled \’Off Centre Circle’, published by the Evening Echo, which chronicles the curious life of a West Cork amateur soccer player.